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Treasures known and unknown in the British Library

Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

Egerton 1900


Muffel’s travelogue

Egerton 1900, f. 12v

Egerton 1900, f. 12v


And so I come to my final BL treasure, known and unknown: a German manuscript of around 1467, Egerton 1900, an account of an expedition from Venice to the Holy Land and St Catherine’s Monastery.23 In Egerton 1900 this expedition is said to have been made in 1465 by Gabriel Muffel, third son of the Nuremburg patrician Nicholas Muffel, whose own manuscript description of a visit to Rome in 1452 is an important art-historical source. Gabriel Muffel’s travelogue, however, is merely a german translation, seemingly made at Passau not Nuremburg, of the Italian account of a visit to the Holy Land in 1346-50 by the Franciscan friar Niccolo da Poggibonsi, the Libro d’oltramare. Niccolo’s text was not illustrated, or at least not until it had been translated into German in Egerton 1900, when it was supplied with 147 miniatures.

To complicate matters, Gabriel Muffel’s German account was then translated back into Italian, and printed at Bologna in 1500. In due course this ‘anonymous’ Italian account was recognized as that by Niccolo da Poggibonsi, without, however, any awareness of the fact that the text had been translated into and then out of German. The Bologna 1500 printing, Viazo da Venesia al Sancto Iherusalem, was accompanied by 145 woodcuts, and enjoyed a tremendous success: 26 editions were published before 1600.24


Miniatures and woodcuts

Woodcut: Holy Sepulchre

Woodcut: Holy Sepulchre




Now comparison shows that except for the frontispiece, most of the woodcuts of the Viazo are based on the images in Egerton 1900. (Here you see the church of the Holy Sepulchre.) Sometimes two miniatures are combined in a single woodcut; sometimes the composition is reversed in the woodcut; a few of the woodcuts do not have a model in Egerton 1900; but the vast majority are based closely on the manuscript. Here at last, or so I thought, was an example of an unknown treasure.


Egerton 1900, f. 51

Egerton 1900, f. 51



But the situation had one more twist in the telling. When the artist of Egerton 1900 came to finish the miniature of Jerusalem’s Golden Gate he substantially altered the structure he had sketched. Instead of a rusticated building with two large windows and a crenellated top, seen from in front, the artist overpainted the preliminary drawing with a pink building seen partly from the side, with narrower windows and a crumbling top to the wall. On comparing the woodcut we can see that its artist based himself on an image that strongly resembled the underdrawing of Egerton 1900, not the finished version.


Woodcut: Golden Gate

Woodcut: Golden Gate



This may be clearer in a detail. (We are looking in particular at a comparison of the crenellations, the rustication, and the windows with diagonal bars.)

I cannot think of a compelling reason why the woodcutter, had he been copying from Egerton 1900 directly, would have reproduced that miniature’s underdrawing. So with some regret I have to conclude that Egerton 1900 was not originally, as it is now, the only illustrated copy of Gabriel Muffel’s fictitious journey, and that the Italian version with woodcuts printed at Bologna in 1500 was based on a lost model, not on Egerton 1900.


Egerton 1900, f. 125v

Egerton 1900, f. 125v



At this stage of my research I returned to Cossar’s textual edition of Egerton 1900, where I discovered that he had already demonstrated in 1985 on philological grounds, and with elegant precision, that the text of the Viazo was based on a different manuscript of Muffel’s text, not Egerton 1900. Accepting this point we can now see that some other miniatures and woodcuts give support to the notion of a lost model.

For example, the artist of Egerton 1900 appears to have misunderstood the locking and bolting mechanism of the tomb of St Catherine.


Woodcut: St Catherine

Woodcut: St Catherine's tomb




In the woodcut the mechanism makes much better sense. This could conceivably be a correction by the woodcut artist, but as his images are routinely far more schematic than the miniatures of Egerton 1900 it is easier to explain this discrepancy as further evidence that the woodcutter was basing himself on a lost model, a model that also lies behind Egerton 1900, but which the german miniaturist failed in this instance fully to understand.



Knowns and unknowns Passio of St Margaret Kissing Images Textiles and Books Tall Narrow Books Egerton 1900 Journey of Unknowing

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